In Search of Polar Perspectives

Perspective changes everything. Seeing things from a new angle, in a new context, can lead to some incredible realizations; just ask the astronauts who look down at our planet from orbit, seeing everything that means anything floating on an island in space. It is hard to have that perspective from close up, as author Ursula Le Guin put it:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death. 

Earthrise, taken by William Anders from the Moon.

To me, this is the uncomfortable comfort of wild spaces – of the wilderness. I grew up in the high desert, where what lies between towns and cities is mainly wild and mainly not for us.  It may sound strange, but it gives me a sense of peace to be somewhere where my presence is incidental, in the grand mountains and epic skies. That landscape’s vastness was there long before I was born, and it will long outlast me. There is a temptation when we find a place with this cosmic perspective, to use it as a kind of blurred backdrop to bring our own lives into sharper focus. However, this temptation must be resisted. The wilderness is not a canvas for your projections, not a metaphor for what you have finally realized about your own life. It just is, independent of you or your narratives.

Such grand places give perspective because of their immensity – they evoke a feeling of the sublime. But this can affect people in different ways. Sometimes the sublime in nature can inspire us, make us feel that we are part of something greater than us. Other times, being such a small piece of such a large thing can inspire fear, even existential dread, as we realise our own insignificance. But we are unique among creatures in being able to perceive and witness this. I think the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen described it well:

The starry sky is the truest friend in life, when you first become acquainted; it is ever there, it gives ever peace, ever reminds you that your restlessness, your doubt, your pains are passing trivialities. The universe is and will remain unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, or sufferings are not so important and unique, when all is said and done.

I felt this keenly two years ago when I went to the Arctic. It was incredible seeing the glaciers and the icy seas, a brutal but beautiful environment at the roof of the world. But my sense of peace was shattered by the evidence, all around us, that this wilderness was not so long-lasting as it might seem. Climate change had shrunk the glaciers from their former size, whaling had destroyed formerly huge populations of beluga whales, and even isolated beaches had plastic garbage washing up on them as litter was conveyed on the ocean currents from other parts of the planet. I’ve described these things as if they happened passively, but we humans have actively caused these changes to occur. In the past, we had the excuse of ignorance. We know now exactly what we are doing.

Arctic mountains, glaciers, beaches… and trash.

Our planet may continue to float perfectly suspended in space, a blue marble in an ocean of emptiness, but our place on it will evaporate if we continue our current course. There is a drastic need for change. This is why I am taking part in Homeward Bound, an initiative bringing together women in science to become leaders in climate action. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership despite high ability and skills, due to patriarchal ideas which we must dismantle if we want to use the full complement of human ability. My cohort of 100 women from across the globe is currently training in visibility, strategy, and science leadership, and in November 2019 we will set sail to Antarctica.  This will be the largest female expedition to Antarctica, and there is no more appropriate place than the continent which is most affected by climate change, and which for so long was considered the sole purview of men.

The cost and the carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica is high. Would it be better to not make the journey, to preserve the place by avoiding the carbon emissions? And more broadly, is it better to preserve wild places by leaving them be? Few naturalists have advocated for our planet’s wild places by avoiding them. But I believe the question is worth considering, and when I was in the Arctic my shipmates and I discussed this at length – if we believed that the Arctic was under threat, then what were we doing there? My own conclusion was that the trip was indeed wasteful, if I did not use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of climate change and produce broader societal value. So I wrote and spoke about the Arctic, I worked with artists to create new works about science, and stepped up my advocacy to be in line with my values. My Homeward Bound journey, similarly, must be larger than the physical trip – like an iceberg whose visible piece is but a small fraction of the whole.

Why not ask about the impact of not just our big gestures, but the smaller choices that make up our lives? What impact does our travel have, our energy consumption online, our food choices? What must I achieve to be worth my carbon footprint? What are we doing to justify this impact, or minimize it?

After coming back from the Arctic, I became vegetarian. That was the right choice for me, though others may view it differently and make their own individual choices. But we must remember that we are not acting on our own – our choices contribute to climate change, to the destruction of the planet we call home.  How will we justify them to our neighbours, to our children? Why not choose to act, in both our personal choices and our collective action toward corporations and governments?

Perspective is important, but perspective without action will not be enough. We must face our discomfort, and look for new solutions, if we are to have any hope of preserving what is sublime on our planet and in ourselves.

I am fundraising for my Homeward Bound journey; you can donate here if you want to help. 


Making Science Inclusive

It’s International Women’s Day, and people seem to find it easier to support girls than women.

I’ve noticed this as a Woman In Science, this eagerness to encourage girls into science with no concern as to what might happen to them as they, inevitably, become Women In Science. Isn’t that what we want for them, to evade the leaks in the pipeline and become role models that future girls can look up to? Don’t we want girls to become Women Who Have It All?

And yet, it’s easier to support girls than women – girls aren’t threatening. Girls aren’t competition. How else to explain the fact that, at this stage in my career, I face more sexism than I ever have before? I went off to college in 2001, at the ripe old age of 16, and you’d think things would have gotten better since then.

But when you’re part of a student cohort, or even a postdoctoral researcher or senior postdoc, you’re classed with other researchers at your level. As a PI on the other hand, running a research group, teaching undergrads, applying for funding, suddenly I am being treated worse than at any previous time in my career. Sure, it’s a demanding job, but I can’t help but notice the female junior academics around me getting saddled with heavier workloads and negative attitudes about their gender that male academics don’t have to deal with. And it doesn’t make my job easier when I can’t go to a conference without being asked ‘who do you work for?’

I have to admit I thought that as a society we’d be over this by now. Naïve student Jessamyn would have assumed there would be no need for gender quotas, in a place as progressive as a university setting, in the year 2019. Lecturer Jessamyn grimly admits that we still need them, and we have a long way to go before we are truly including everyone in higher education, and in science. Science is for everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, sexuality, or background, but it’s a lot of work to make that happen. Initiatives like the Athena SWAN and IOP Juno awards are a step in the right direction, and I’m glad to see my own institution pursuing them, but I think of them as being like the Bechdel Test – a necessary minimum, but not nearly enough to ensure true inclusion. We need to make sure that everyone is part of the story, not just the usual suspects.

Sometimes I find this tough going. I work in physics, a field with a pretty bad diversity problem, and I am used to being the only woman in the room. I wish I didn’t have so much experience being put down or disrespected, and while it may me a minority of physicists who act this way, a few consistent bad experiences can really change the environment. I sometimes wonder about the ethics of encouraging young girls into physics, having had the experiences I have: am I shepherding them into a place where they won’t be valued?

But you know, when I was an undergraduate at the cusp of either leaving physics or doubling down and pursuing a graduate education, I was lucky to end up working for an amazing physicist who I looked up to. She was an inspiration, a wonderful and supportive supervisor, and a role model whether she intended to be or not. In fact she still is – her name is Dr. Natalie Roe, and she is now the Physics Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I’m sure she faced adversity in her career, and had experiences that differed from her male colleagues, but when I looked at her as a student I saw an incredible scientist and person, who I wanted to emulate. She paved a road for me into physics, and probably for many other young women who she mentored.

Culture change is slow, and frustrating, and in fighting injustice we often feel like we are far behind where we want to be. But I am grateful for everyone who’s pushed for change, and I hope that we can all keep paying this forward, to make science the kind of place where every girl, and every woman, is truly welcome.

Expressing Nanoscience through Dance

Growing up, I was a dancer – I performed in salsa, swing, and ballroom competitions, trained a little in ballet, and was the captain of my high school dance team. When I went off to college to study physics and math, I never imagined that I would get to bring science and dance together someday.

But in 2017, when I was selected for a science/art residency aboard a ship in the Arctic, my roommate for three weeks in close quarters was Deidre Cavazzi, a choreographer specializing in interdisciplinary dance projects. Deidre was a wonderful companion on the journey we shared, and is now a good friend, so I was delighted when she suggested that she might be able to come to Ireland during her next sabbatical to choreograph a dance piece based on my research in nanoscience. I felt really honoured, because I had seen her previous work based on things like the Fibonacci sequence and banned books and to me, the idea of translating these ideas into physical movement and shape and tempo was fascinating.

So it was very exciting when Deidre came to Galway in autumn 2018, supported by a public engagement grant from the Institute of Physics. She came to my lab, talked with me about my research, and read everything she could get her hands on about nanoelectronics and memristors and novel devices that are mimicking the brain. We got a beautiful venue courtesy of the Discipline of Drama, Theatre, and Performance at NUI Galway, and then for two nights during Science Week we invited people to a free event where I gave a short introduction to nanoscience, and then Deidre introduced a dance theatre piece that explored the same concepts, with images from my research and movement choreographed and set to music by Deidre. The full show was recorded, and you can watch it here:

Video of my talk and the dance performance that Deidre created.

One of the best things for me about this project was that Deidre asked me if I wanted to be one of the dancers! I had a wonderful time, and seeing how she brought nanoscience concepts to a whole new context was truly inspiring. You can read more about Deidre’s process on her blog here, where she describes her process and her time in Ireland. I enjoyed my collaboration with her so very much, and we are hoping to repeat it again sometime in the future! But I couldn’t actually sum up the project better than this quote, from one of our audience members:

The scientist and the choreographer had understood each other so well… I loved the blending of science and art, I think both can benefit hugely from each other as each has a unique perspective but are trying to answer similar questions.

Science Communication and Cultural Translation

I’m American, but have done most of my science communication in Ireland and the UK. That’s pretty much a fluke, a result of the fact that I didn’t have the time or confidence to pursue science communication during graduate school, and that the timing of my move to Ireland coincided with an explosion of opportunities – Soapbox Science, Pint of Science, Famelab, and of course Bright Club – for talking about science.

That means I do a lot of my science communication outside of the culture and educational system I grew up in, which can be a challenge. References, attitudes, and even just ways of talking about science are different in different places, and most places are pretty different from the science town where I grew up: Los Alamos, New Mexico.

I’ve been working with scientists in Nairobi, Kenya, to challenge myself even more. The Institute of Physics have funded me to work with the Mawazo Institute twice now, a research institute which funds and trains female African scholars in science and social science policy-relevant disciplines. I’ve helped them put on public-facing events, connect to local universities and informal science educators, and most recently returned to Nairobi to run a full day course about effective communication of research.

Working with the amazing Mawazo Fellows in Nairobi.

On my science communication walkabout, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

  • Metaphors are great but they may not translate. See for example, all my baseball and basketball metaphors (it’s a home run! a slam dunk!) that I left back in the US.
  • The slang of where you grew up is as much a sort of jargon as scientific terminology can be. Change how you talk, or at least define your terms.
  • How direct and emotive a communicator your audience expects may vary wildly between different places! This can work to your advantage or disadvantage, but at the very least you have to be aware of it.
  • Also consider the level of formality your audience expects, and be conscious about your choice to match or subvert it as this can have different meanings across cultural divides. My personal style as well as my nationality is less formal than lots of the places I end up speaking, and I have to think about what cues I can use to show I’m worth listening to.
  • And finally, consider how fast you talk! You may have been told to slow down when doing public speaking in the past, to be easily understood, but consider that fast talking will compound when people aren’t familiar with your accent (even in a country speaking your native language).

It’s a tough feeling when you move somewhere new, or go on an exciting trip to talk about science, and suddenly realise that in this new context you are not the effective communicator that you were back home. But I think that most of the skills we develop by talking about science are transferable, it just takes some thought and attention to the new context. And as always, know your audience!

Why teach physics?

To me, teaching at the university level has three specific roles:

  • Student empowerment
  • Democratization of knowledge
  • The betterment of humanity

As an educator, my job is first and foremost to empower students by helping them to learn, access information, and create new knowledge. This process is inherently democratic as it is meant to equalize access to knowledge, so that any student can learn any subject regardless of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, or other factors which they cannot control. Empowering individual students in this way leads to a society that contains more and more well-informed, competent and capable individuals, who will use their knowledge and talents to contribute to the betterment of the human condition. My teaching is meant to be a public good.

The author closing TEDxTUM 2017. Photo by Wade Million.

This may seem like an obvious, if lofty goal. However, there are challenges which must be addressed, especially in the teaching of science generally and physics more specifically. Physics requires not only topical knowledge and strong math skills, but also critical thinking and problem solving, which can at first seem at odds with the way that many students have prepared themselves for the Leaving Cert. In the Irish context, teaching first year physics, I try to help students transition from a rote learning mentality to embrace more complex modes of understanding. I must also address a common fallacy about science, that it is a collection of facts. Showing students how these facts are connected, and that science is a creative endeavour at heart, is needed to progress their understanding.

There is also an elitism around physics, sometimes perpetuated by physicists themselves, that must be broken down. Physics relies on math in a way that few other subjects do, and while math is essential to understanding physical concepts, many students experience ‘math anxiety’ that must be addressed. Using language, demonstrations, and math together helps students cement the basic concepts. Studies have shown that the use of humour in lectures also aids students to remember information better, which comes as little surprise to me after my experience running Bright Club.

A talk I gave about using humour to communicate tough topics.

Often, whether or not students choose to pursue a topic depends not so much on the topic itself as on their own identity: whether or not they can see themselves in physics, whether they ‘fit in’. My own experience growing up surrounded by scientists helped show me what a scientific career looked like and how to access it. But students without this background need more from their instructors: to see scientists as real people, to understand the steps to a scientific career and where it can lead them. This is especially important for women and other underrepresented minorities, who are still sorely needed in physics. Even if the students who take my classes choose not to study physics, I aim to leave them with a solid understanding and positive attitude toward physics, to understand that physics is a way to understand the world around us, and an important part of everything we do.

I do my best to actively engage students in lectures, problem-solving, and laboratory, remembering that people often say that you cannot teach anyone physics, but empower them to learn it themselves. My role is to find as many ways as there are students to present the information and connective ideas of physics. I am inspired in this by my own undergraduate physics mentor, Richard Muller at the University of California Berkeley, who was famous as a teacher for his course Physics for Future Presidents. He understood that everyone, not just future physicists, will benefit from a solid understanding of physics, and designed a seminar style course focused more on interesting and relevant science topics rather than historical sequences of discovery. I take the liberal arts view that physics is for everyone, the same way literature is for everyone.

My aim as a teacher is not merely to get as many people as possible to study physics. It is to improve engagement, understanding, and attitudes toward physics, which is a central science of relevance to every single person. I want to empower students to understand physics, improve their access to that knowledge and understanding of how it is connected, and help scientists and non-scientists alike to work for the betterment of humanity. This makes better physicists, but it also makes better people.

The World’s Smallest Movie

One of the most incredible movies ever made is this stop-motion animated film, made by moving carbon monoxide molecules around on the surface of copper at IBM. It’s incredible to think that when we look at this, we are seeing quantum mechanics – bonding at the nanoscale, and echoes of the wave nature of reality.

There is a short documentary that explains how the movie was made, manipulating the molecules with scanning tunnelling microscopy, which is also worth a watch:

Women in Science at the End of the World

It is one thing to use science to better understand the world, another to fear the world itself is crumbling all around you. And yet the scientists who were pursuing research during World War II must have felt both these things keenly, as the Great Powers became embroiled in the second major war in a generation.

Against this backdrop, scientific advances were about to become very
important to the course of the war, and the public perception of science was about to be changed indelibly. Researchers in Europe and the United States were digging to the heart of nuclear fission, an understanding of how the nuclei at the heart of atoms could split, changing into other elements in a naturally-occurring process. Fission was also thought to release an unheard of amount of energy, which in wartime led to one obvious thought: was it possible to use fission to build a bomb?

The Project
After a report from the UK was shared with the US Army, which coordinated the results of a series of secret conferences to discuss the possibility of a fission bomb and how it might be designed, the Army Corps of Engineers launched what was called ‘the Manhattan Project’. Major General Leslie Groves was put in charge, and appointed as scientific director Robert Oppenheimer, an expert in neutron collisions at the University of California Berkeley (the only university with a particle accelerator powerful enough to make plutonium, which had been recently discovered in 1941). Oppenheimer’s first task was to find a suitable location to build a lab where a fission bomb could be designed, built, and eventually tested.

As a child, Oppenheimer suffered from tuberculosis and recovered at the Los Alamos Ranch School in the New Mexico mountains. Far from any major settlements, this location seemed ideal to Oppenheimer and he suggested it as the main site for the Manhattan Project. The land at Los Alamos was purchased by the US government in late 1942, with scientific work beginning there in 1943. Initially General Groves had imagined a military installation, with the scientists in uniforms and posted away from their families. But key scientists balked at uniforms and many wished to bring their families with them. The Los Alamos scientists, working in secret, are often considered a boys’ club, plus wives. Yet even in wartime, and facing prejudice their male counterparts did not, women made huge scientific contributions to the success of the Manhattan Project.

Lise Meitner

The physicist whose work set the scene for the development of the fission bomb, though she would not have wished it, was Austrian-born Lise Meitner. Working in pre-war Germany, she and long-time collaborator Otto Hahn developed the theory and the experimental understanding of nuclear fission. But Meitner was uprooted from Germany due to the Nuremberg laws and her Jewish heritage, and she was forced to flee to Stockholm to continue her work. Her German-based colleagues left her name off several key papers, fearing repercussions from the Nazi authorities. And so the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944 was then awarded to Meitner’s main collaborator, Otto Hahn, for the discovery of nuclear fission. Although the Nobel committee later revealed that the complications of wartime and the difficulty of assessing interdisciplinary work had contributed to Meitner’s omission from the prize, the US Army had recognized her contribution and invited her to join the Manhattan Project. Her experimental and theoretical insight had clearly been critical, and she was no longer ensnared in Nazi Germany as Hahn was. But Meitner refused to join the Project, saying ‘I will
have nothing to do with a bomb!’ Her advancement of the theory of nuclear fission was, nevertheless, critical to the Project’s success.

Lilli Hornig

Among the women who did join the Project was Lilli Hornig, a Czech chemist who specialized in the newly discovered element plutonium. She had a master’s degree from Harvard when the Manhattan Project began and came to Los Alamos married to an explosives scientist, having been told that anyone
with a chemistry background would be welcomed on board.

Upon arrival, however, Horning was offered a typing job, and was only permitted to work on plutonium chemistry after saying she did not know how to type. Hornig was moved to the explosives group once lab management realised the intense radioactivity of plutonium might cause reproductive damage. ‘I tried delicately to point out that they might be more susceptible than I was; that didn’t
go over well,’ she said in an interview with Manhattan Project Voices (a public
archive of oral histories).

Hornig was eventually a witness to the ‘Trinity’ test of the first so-called ‘atomic
bomb’ in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Trinity detonation used plutonium as its fissile material, standing on the shoulders of Hornig’s work, but after seeing the devastation it was capable of, she signed a letter along with 100 other scientists requesting that the bomb be demonstrated to the Japanese on an uninhabited island. The next two nuclear detonations occurred over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 people. After the war had ended, Hornig went back to graduate school, getting her PhD and becoming a chemistry professor at Brown University. She was a feminist and a passionate advocate for women in science, studying inequality in the sciences alongside her first love of chemistry.

Maria Goeppert Mayer

Maria Goeppert Mayer was a German physicist, whose doctoral thesis was super-
vised by Max Born, the father of quantum mechanics. Goeppert Mayer came to America when her husband took employment as a professor at Johns Hopkins, but nepotism laws at the time prevented the wife of a professor from being employed at the same institution. Initially she worked unpaid, collaborating with others and eventually studying the separation of different atomic isotopes. The couple then moved to Columbia University and there Goeppert Mayer began her work with the Manhattan Project, studying isotope separation of uranium compounds to be purified into fissile fuel.

While comparing different isotopes, she began to notice ‘magic numbers’ of nucleons which led to more stable atomic nuclei. In 1945, she went to Los Alamos to work directly with Edward Teller on the successor to the atomic bomb: the hydrogen bomb, which exploited the energy from the atomic fusion of elements.

After the war, Goeppert Mayer continued to develop her shell model of the atomic nucleus, which she likened to pairs of waltzers at a dance: each nucleon was a waltzer paired with another waltzer, and more waltzing couples could be fitted into the nucleus by having some go clockwise, some anticlockwise, paralleling nuclear spin. She finally achieved her first full-time paid position as a scientist in 1960 at the University of California San Diego, after receiving her PhD in 1930. When she received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, for her shell model of the atomic nucleus, the local newspaper headline read ‘S. D. mother wins Nobel Prize’. Goeppert Mayer was the second female Nobel Laureate in physics, after Marie Curie.

Each of these women had critical scientific and technical contributions to the Manhattan project, but the politics of the time and secrecy surrounding the wartime effort shrouded the impact of their work. The contributions of male scientists to the Project are more widely touted, and although Hornig, Goeppert Mayer, and Meitner are long gone, the scientific establishment today still struggles to appropriately acknowledge the contributions of women.

Furthermore, that a Czech, a German, and an Austrian were so central to ending an international war, displaced from their countries of origin, shows the value of immigration and even of wartime refugees. Despite difficulties accessing academia and key resources, female scientists played a major role in the Manhattan Project, the building of the first atomic bomb, and the end of World War II.